Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Theatre de la Mode I

            In 2007 I took a fortnight trip to London and Barcelona. I had an incredible time besides the fact that my days were constant marathons. Two weeks are not enough to see even a fraction of the museums, the galleries, the fascinating historic sites and the numerous other treasures contained in those cities. By the time I boarded my plane on my way back, I was so overloaded with impressions and emotions that I was constantly feeling high and at the same time completely exhausted. It took me another couple of weeks to calm down and distill all the memories from the trip.                          
         One that I’m very fond of is the memory about an exhibition in Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Golden Age of Couture. I’ve had a soft spot for Haute Couture ever since my early twenties when I saw my first movie about the Fashion Week in Paris. I still follow religiously every new collection of my favourite designers as often as I can. You can’t imagine my delight when I found out that my trip to London has the perfect timing and I can visit the exhibit and see with my own eyes some real haute couture pieces. There was also another exciting surprise waiting for me at the museum. The Theatre de la Mode. An exhibit within the exhibit. I had to admit, I’d never even heard of it before and this fact, of course enhanced my impression of it.

              Towards the end of the World War II, in time of great hardship, the Paris couturiers created the Theatre de la Mode as one of the most telling and fully complete representations of fashion splendor. Hoping  to make a statement to the world that Paris was still the center of fashion, couturiers, jewellers, milliners, hairdressers, and theater designers joined together to present the Theatre de la Mode. This was an exhibition of around two hundred dolls, dressed in the latest styles and arranged in theater sets, designed by artists such as Christian Berard and Jean Cocteau. The exhibition, inaugurated in Paris in March 1945, began a long journey first to other capitals of Europe and Great Britain and then in 1946 to the USA, raising funds for war victims and promoting French fashion.
         Luckily for me, there was a beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibit, which is now the base for this story. I have to split this narrative into two since even the compressed version, I’m afraid, might run a bit too long and be a trial for your patience.
         I thought it might be a good idea to start with a little history of the period and how it reflected on Haute Couture and fashion in general. After all the need to survive affected every aspect of daily existence in those days, and that went for the Haute Couture as well; the question of prestige took a backseat to the overriding need to protect the very existence of a profession, which at that time provided a million people with a livelihood and to safeguard its capacity to create.

Left-US Army women taking fashion classes.   Right-Members of the Women's Army  Corps trying French perfumes in Paris, 1945.

        Women turning the pages of the rare fashion magazine published in those days may have had their secret dreams at the sight of the great couturiers creations, but what they looked for in particular was the clever idea that would enable them to keep looking smart, or coquette as the term went then, an adjective that is no longer in use today, but which for a long time was the very definition of a certain type of Parisienne, the sort that never ceased to taunt the Germans with their open display of ingenuity  despite the fact that there was virtually nothing to be had.

Left-In spite of all the difficulties, Parisian women made every effort to maintain their nice appearance.  Right-Parisians greeting Allied Troops, 1944.

         Everything was strictly rationed. In June 1941 a “clothing” card was issued that was so complex that the Petit Echo de la Mode published a practical guide to enlighten its readers. Each card was worth a hundred points; a pittance, when one considers that a jacket containing a modest percentage of wool was worth forty points. Many women turned to little dressmakers for their wardrobe, but textiles too were strictly rationed. The rules specifically stated, however, that exception could be made for “unusually tall people and pregnant women”. One could also barter old garments, but since there was a rule against exchanging men’s clothes for women’s, the newspapers of the period carried patterns with which to transform a man’s three-piece suit into a woman’s suit.

Left-Woman painting her legs so that it appears as tough she is wearing stockings in order to save ration coupons. Right- Rationing in Wartime France.

         How did the Parisienne fare in her struggle against deprivation, gloom and hardship? We see her on her way through the streets of Paris on her bicycle, sporting a tailored suit with slightly outsized shoulders, a short skirt - naturally, for fabrics were scarce, her legs painted, platform shoes and hats so fanciful and extravagant they bordered on the irreverent. Much prose had been devoted to those hats. Jean Cocteau wrote in his diary that they reminded him of puff pastries made of tulle or twisted candies. Christian Dior also mentioned those incredible hats: ”Made of scraps that could not be used for anything else, they looked like huge pouffes that defied both the period’s woes and plain common sense”.

Hats were the most important accessory because they gave a new look to an old outfit.

         Parisiennes used this carefree attitude as a weapon against the austerity inflicted by the Germans, who had become so impatient with the general display of insolence that had threatened to close down every single millinery shop. These quarrels were mere skirmishes, however, compared to the constant battle it took to keep the haute couture in Paris. The German Reich planned to turn French Haute Couture into an official body with head offices in Berlin and Vienna. Faced with such a project, Lucien Lelong the president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture /The Fashion Syndicate/ tried a number of arguments:” You can impose anything upon us by force, but Paris couture cannot be uprooted, neither as a whole nor in part. Either it stays in Paris or it does not exist. It is not within the power of any nation to steal fashion creativity, for not only it does it function quite spontaneously, but also it is the product of a tradition maintained by a large body of skilled people in a variety of crafts and trades”. Becoming more demanding still, the Germans threatened to close down the Haute Couture once and for all in late July 1944. It was only saved from total extinction in extremis by the Liberation. Despite its four-year struggle, the industry had succeeded in maintaining its creativity and independence and had kept its skilled workforce, which meant that once again it was in a position to take its place in the overall French economy.

Some outstanding models from the collections of: from left-Pierre Balmain, center and right-Jack Fath.

         The immediate postwar period was one of rebirth and styles, fabrics and prints were in again in the forms of motifs taken from Renaissance velvets, Chinese vases and Delft earthenware. Crepe, whether plain or printed, continued to carry the day in view of its fluidity and body. Suits and coats came in herringbone and hounds-tooth fabrics and large checks. While shoulders were still important, they now owed their effect to the cut alone, often accentuated by a pointed yoke inset that made the waist look smaller. It was known as the V-line, for Victory. Draped designs were back as well. Dressy clothes were short and trimmed with jet embroidery or braid. Evening dresses were still rare, due no doubt to the lack of gasoline, which made it difficult for people to get around.

Left-Pierre Balmain fitting a model. He opened his couture house in 1945. Right-Christian Dior on the eve of his first collection in February, 1947.

         All of these trends were included in the spring-summer collections of 1946. The dresses worn by the figurines in the Theatre de la Mode exhibition in New York give us a complete record of the event. The fashions of the 1940s had been left behind and the new trends and memories of fashions of the past converged in a veritable kaleidoscope, and creativity was once again unshackled.
         Women everywhere bowed to the new image, powerless when it comes to anything as mysterious as Fashion. That in a nutshell, perhaps summed it all up.